Something strange is going on with the Kansas City Smoke. With a month left to go in the season, the Smoke decided to fire head coach Randy Bergner… but they’re letting him remain behind the bench until the end of the season. The revelation left the front office struggling to explain and the players confused and angry.
“It’s a weird situation here,” said Smoke D Gary Hermine. “That’s all I can say about it.”
It’s no great surprise that the Smoke would dismiss Bergner. The organization spent a good deal of money adding scorers in the offseason, and expected to have a shot at playoff contention. The Smoke’s high-powered offense excited the fans, and the team got off to a decent start. But their poor defense and mediocre goaltending quickly swamped the scoring, and Kansas City was clearly out of the race by the All-Star break. Bergner’s 71-156-13 record in three-plus seasons suggest that the firing wasn’t unwarranted. But dismissing him with just a few weeks left, and then leaving him to finish out the year, is a bizarre move that begs for an explanation.
As best as anyone can piece it together, the story went like this: After Tuesday’s 5-3 loss to Boston, Smoke GM Garth Melvin came into Bergner’s office to tell him that the team would not be renewing his contract at the end of the season. Melvin then offered Bergner the choice to leave now or remain head coach for the rest of the season. Bergner opted for the latter.
The coach then spoke to reporters at his usual post-game press conference. After fielding a few questions, Bergner tossed out a casual aside: “By the way, I just got pre-sacked. They’re dumping me at the end of the year, but they let me stick around so I can have fun with you guys for a while longer.”
At first, the reporters assumed that the quick-witted Bergner was joking. Once they realized he was serious, they pelted him with follow-up questions.
“Why would they do this now?” a reporter asked.
“No idea,” Bergner replied. “Maybe they thought I’d rather spend the next month golfing? But nah, I can do plenty of that this summer.”
“How does it feel to be… um, sort-of fired?” asked another newsman.
“Oh no, I’m definitely fired,” said the coach. “Just not yet. The Grim Reaper sent me a Zoom invite for next month, basically. I’ve got it on my calendar.”
The reporters then poured into the locker room to ask the players about the news. The players, who had not been informed of what happened, reacted with predictable confusion.
“I feel bad about that,” Bergner said later. “I should have said something to them first. But I was on my way to talk to reporters anyway, so…”
The reporters then tracked down Melvin, who asked, “Who told you that?” When the reporters said it was Bergner, the GM seemed irritated with the coach.
“That was a private conversation,” Melvin snapped. “I don’t know why he went blabbing about it to reporters. But I guess that’s to be expected, since you’re his biggest fans.” (Bergner denied that Melvin asked him to keep the news private.)
Needless to say, this response went over poorly, both with the reporters and in the locker room. Once the players got over the initial confused and realized what had happened, they lined up behind Bergner.
“This is a crappy way to treat a good coach,” said C Noel Picard. “Coach Bergner’s worked hard and he’s treated us well, and he deserves better than getting stabbed in the back.”
“When I was with Dakota, a lot of not-great stuff went on,” said LW Ryan Airston. “But they never would have done something like this. Announcing that you’re going to fire him, and then just leaving him out there for a month… who does something like that?”
Now on the defensive, Melvin attempted to claim that he made the move as a favor to Bergner. “With expansion coming, there are going to be jobs out there,” said the GM. “We wanted to let Randy know the situation so, if one of the new teams comes calling, he has an opportunity to take it. We wanted to do right by him.”
“Um, thanks?” replied Bergner. “I mean, I’m pretty sure Baltimore and Salt Lake will wait until the end of the season to fill out their coaching staffs.”
After taking a pasting in the press for several days, Melvin finally apologized on Saturday. “I understand now that I made a mistake,” said the Smoke GM. “Randy Bergner has been an important part of this franchise since the beginning, and this was the wrong way to handle the end of his time here. He deserved better, and our players deserved better.”
One question remains: Why did Bergner opt to stick around, rather than leave immediately and get paid not to coach for the final month?
“I like coaching,” said Bergner. “I like these guys. And I didn’t have anything else planned, so I figured: why not stick it out? It’s kind of awkward now, but I can live with awkward.”